I recently got the opportunity to interview Lýdia Machová, a conference interpreter and PhD student from Bratislava, Slovakia. Here she shares her experience learning 8 languages, as well as some information about working as an interpreter.
At the end of this interview, I’ve also included a video of a presentation that she recently did at the Polyglot Gathering (2015) in Berlin.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do for a living?
LM: I’m Lydia from Slovakia, 26 years old, a keen traveller, and an even keener language enthusiast. I’m lucky to have found a way to turn my love for languages into an income ‒ I work as a freelance conference interpreter.
FTLOL: What languages can you speak to a good conversational level (or else fluently), and are you currently studying any others? Do you often get a chance to speak these languages in your daily life?
LM: I studied English and German, which are both my working languages. I use English every single day, mostly with friends all over the world, or through reading/watching things online. It’s a bit more difficult to practice spoken German because almost all German native speakers I have met on my travels prefer to speak English (for some reason) and I don’t really have German-speaking friends in Bratislava.
I also speak Polish and Spanish very fluently, and then French and Esperanto on a somewhat less advanced level, but still fluently, and I am currently working on Slovak sign language and on Russian. (Getting there, soon 🙂 )
FTLOL: When did you start learning foreign languages? Was there a specific event that triggered your interest in them?
LM: Interestingly enough, what helped me learn how to learn languages on my own was a very incompetent Spanish teacher in a language course I took. At that time (I was 20 years old), I was just like most other language learners ‒ if the teacher told me I was going to be fluent after taking four semesters of Spanish lessons with her, learning once a week for an hour and a half with 20 other students in the class, then I didn’t have a reason not to believe her, right?
It was only after a few weeks of very slow and ineffective progress that I realized I could do much better on my own. I continued working with the textbook and soon started to try out additional methods, which worked amazingly well (Goldlist method, Anki, back translations, intense listening practice, etc.). After two years, when my Spanish was quite fluent and I could read any fiction book in Spanish, I decided to take on a new language every two years ‒ so far successfully.
FTLOL: How do you study a foreign language? For example, are there specific resources that you use? Does your personality affect the way in which you prefer to learn?
LM: I use a lot of back translations, meaning that I translate textbook texts into Slovak and then translate those sentences back into the foreign language (just orally, no writing) until I can do it fluently. Those phrases then get stuck in my mind and I can use them pretty effectively in my own conversations.
Only later did I learn that this method is actually already quite a popular one among polyglots ‒ it’s called Assimil. Besides this translation-based exercise, I also make sure to be exposed to the language a lot by listening to various material (always at my current level or just a bit higher, no native material at the beginning) and by reading simple texts or bilingual books.
Another very important part of my studying process is a language tandem with a native speaker. These conversations always enable me to make huge steps forward which, in turn, enhances my motivation.
And my personality? Well, language learning always requires you to get a bit out of your comfort zone. I feel just as stupid speaking a foreign language for the first time as anyone else. The pronunciation feels weird, I know I have a terrible accent, and I feel embarrassed and at times desperate for loss of words. You just have to stick it out and the breaking point will arrive soon, for sure.
Lýdia and her interpreting colleagues with Tony Robbins after interpreting his event from English into Slovak in Poznan, Poland.
FTLOL: What have been some of the most difficult aspects for you when learning a new language? What have you found easy? Can you give us some examples?
LM: The first conversations in the new language are always difficult. But there’s no way around it if you want to be able to SPEAK the language well. This is what happens in all the languages I’ve been learning.
Another difficult step is to move from the yey!-I-can-have-a-basic-conversation phase into the let’s-work-on-the-vocabulary phase. That’s when the progress is not so visible and learners often give up in the middle of the journey.
And another difficulty I’ve had was with sign language. I had to come up with my own system of noting down signs, as there is currently no dictionary for the Slovak sign language. If I don’t note something down, I tend to forget the newly learnt words or signs quickly.
FTLOL: Do you think that it is better to go to a foreign country to learn a language, or can someone achieve a similar level of fluency without leaving their home town?
LM: Well, there’s certainly no harm in learning a foreign language in the country where it’s spoken, but I definitely wouldn’t say it’s necessary. I have never spent more than 3-4 months in any foreign country so far; I’ve always been learning in Slovakia. With the possibilities that the Internet gives us today, this common excuse just doesn’t hold water any more.
FTLOL: From what I’ve seen, you are currently a PhD student in Translation Studies in Bratislava. Can you tell us a bit about what your program is about and what you do there?
LM: I am writing a thesis on the self-assessment of interpreters and I also teach interpreting lessons. It’s quite interesting for me because as a student of the same study program, I tried and tested a lot of methods to practice interpreting by myself, outside of the lessons.
I am now trying to apply that to my students and to make them understand that there is no such thing as becoming a fully-fledged interpreter just by attending those few lessons during their studies. Just like in language learning, it will never be enough to merely attend a language course and do the little inevitable homework that the teacher requires; you have to give it some extra effort to really learn the language. This actually applies to anything we ever learn, doesn’t it? But with such complex skills, such as to be fluent in a whole new language or to be able to interpret almost anything (after due preparation), the principle of autonomous learning is of utmost importance.
Lýdia interpreting Slovakia’s former prime minister, Iveta Radičová, at a conference in Slovakia.
FTLOL: Can you tell us in more detail about what you do as a freelance interpreter? What does this work entail, how do you get interpreting jobs, and do you have any advice for how someone could go about entering this type of profession? Do you have any interesting or memorable experiences that came from acting as an interpreter?
LM: I could be answering these questions for several hours and still have a lot to say. Instead, I would like to refer the readers of this blog to a presentation of mine at the Polyglot Gathering 2015 in Berlin where I basically answered them all using numerous examples.
For instance, I explained what an interpreter does when they don’t know a particular word (starting at 23:26), how an interpreter writes their notes (13:50), and I provided two quick examples of consecutive interpreting at the very beginning.
In short, interpreting is a wonderful profession that will give you opportunities to meet interesting people, learn something new every day, and see things that other people do not normally get to see (see the examples from my interpreting experience starting at 33:57). But it’s definitely not something you could just take on after you’ve mastered a foreign language or two well. It requires intense preparation, preferably at a university or a professional interpreting course.
Of course, you can always interpret informally for your friends ‒ that’s great fun and quite useful too ‒ but in order to do this professionally, you really need to learn some interpreting techniques and processes in addition to your foreign languages.
FTLOL: What advice would you have for people who might be struggling to learn a foreign language?
LM: My number one piece of advice, and this is something every single polyglot and successful language learner will tell you, is: Learn in small bits (15-30 minutes a day), but make sure it’s every day.
Make sure that what you do with the language is fun for you, and not a dreary study routine. And do not think that other people have the “talent to learn a foreign languages” and that you don’t. It’s nonsense.
Unfortunately, we are living in a society that promotes a very ineffective way to learn languages (from textbooks, in a course or school, without one’s own input and without much contact with the real language), and that’s why many people falsely believe that learning languages is so difficult, if not impossible. It absolutely is possible, it can be a highly enjoyable process and it can enrich your life in ways you haven’t even imagined. Good luck to you all!
Check out Lýdia’s presentation at the Polyglot Gathering (2015) in Berlin where she discusses the life of an interpreter.